I first read The Outsiders when I was fourteen, same age as the protagonist, Ponyboy. I had known that I led a safe, sheltered life, but it wasn't until I read this book that I truly realized how different my life was from what it could be. It's one of the first books I can remember reading that felt very real to me, not like a made-up story. I didn't learn until many years later that this was inspired by actual events, but somehow it has always felt real, right from the first reading.
Ponyboy Curtis lives with his older brothers Soda and Darry -- their parents died in an accident eight months earlier. They live on the poor side of town (Tulsa, Oklahoma, though the book never explicitly states that) and are called "greasers" because they grease their hair back. Basically, they're hoods, only they don't consider themselves to be. They and their friends look out for each other, but don't have an actual gang. But they constantly battle the "socs," who are the rich kids from the other side of town.
Late one night, a bunch of socs jump Ponyboy and his friend Johnny. They try to drown Ponyboy, and Johnny knifes a soc to save his friend. The two boys run away so Johnny won't have to go to jail and so the social workers won't make Ponyboy go live in a foster home instead of staying with his older brothers. They end up labeled heroes for rescuing some children, and then there's all this tragedy, and... yeah, it's an emotional rollercoaster. Eva called it "breathtaking," and it is all of that.
Even now, reading this for the umpteenth time, I'm amazed by how realistic these characters feel. I've read a lot of YA novels, a lot of books about juvenile delinquents, and a lot of books written by fairly young writers, but none of them have matched this book for capturing how teens think and feel. I am perpetually fascinated by the way it presents a gritty, raw world without using shocking language or rubbing our noses in filth. And yet, it also doesn't try to idealize the characters -- none of them are innocent or to be pitied. Hinton doesn't want us to feel sorry for Ponyboy, or for Johnny or Dally, either. She wants us to try to understand them. And that's what I love best about The Outsiders -- that it helps me understand a little bit about how people live and think, people who are very different from myself and live in very different circumstances. I may never meet someone who has lived a life as hard and painful as Ponyboy's, but this book helps me understand him a little bit even so.
I've probably read The Outsiders close to twenty times in the past twenty years. I remember I read it three times in a row when I first discovered it. I still have that same copy, which someone had given to me after they were through reading it for high school. It had their name on the sides in black marker, and after I finished my first reading of it, I found a black marker and made all the edges of the pages black so that their name was completely obliterated. I had a great need to make my copy mine alone. Then I censored out the three (very tame) bad words in it and read it over and over. When my brother was old enough, I let him read it too. Every time we had a birthday, we'd talk about which character we were the same age as. When I turned twenty-one and was older than Darry, I was glum. My gift to my brother when he turned fourteen was his very own copy of the book. We also watched the excellent 1983 film adaptation many, many times, and I recently replaced my almost-worn-out VHS copy with a DVD.
So, um, yeah, this is one of my favorite books ever, and I expect it always will be.
Particularly Good Bits:
I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me (p. 19).
"You greasers have a different set of values. You're more emotional. We're sophisticated -- cool to the point of not feeling anything. Nothing is for real with us (p. 35).
Tow-headed and shifty-eyed, Dally was anything but handsome. Yet in his hard face there was character, pride, and a savage defiance of the world (p. 54).
I liked my books and clouds and sunsets. Dally was so real he scared me (p. 68).
I wish I could say that everything went back to normal, but it didn't. Especially me (p. 146).
If This a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG for violence, teen drinking and smoking, and three minor curse words.
This is my 46th book read and reviewed for the Classics Club, and my 15th for the Women's Classic Literature Event.